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This is the season where winter has outstayed its welcome but spring has only made the most halting and rudimentary progress (although there is progress–more on that next week). In order to fulfill the pent-up need for garden beauty, here is a still life painting by one of the greatest Dutch masters of the golden era. This is Still Life with Rose Branch, Beetle and Bee which was painted in 1741 (the work can today be found in the Kunstmuseum Basel). I wrote about Ruysch’s remarkable career in an earlier post, but her exquisite work demands further attention. Although she is famous among painters for her flower painting, within medical/bioscience circles she is known for the work she made in collaboration with her father, the great anatomist. Those works are…uh…found object installation art (?) made of exquisitely arranged and preserved human body parts (particularly stillborn infants). They are too disquieting and extreme (and probably poisonous) for contemporary art tastes, but believe me they are among the most remarkable works in the whole pantheon.

Still Life with Rose Branch, Beetle and Bee (Rachel Ruysch, 1741)

But let’s talk about this wonderful rose painting! Although the composition is small and modest (for a floral still life), it is also extremely beautiful and showcases the strengths which made Ruysch one of the greatest flower painters in art history. For one thing, the characteristic black background of golden age Dutch flower paintings is gone and has been replaced by a neutral parapet against a neutral wall bathed in sunlight. The glass vase–which typically forms the compositional foundation of still life paintings–is likewise gone! Instead we have a great translucent pink rose surrounded by supporting flowers cut and cast straight onto the platform. A stag beetle leers up in dismay at the fulsome disaster (looking quite a lot like a Dutch burgher throwing up his hands at the scene of a shipwreck). The high baroque drama of radiant glowing colors against darkest black has been replaced with greater realism which invites us to contemplate the radical difference of the textures of petals, leaves, and thorns. The viewer can almost feel the prickle of that rose stem. The fading light and the bee burrowing into the cut flower for a last sip of nectar remind us of the transience of the things of this world.

Ruysch’s artwork, however, is not transient–it stands the test of time (and is so well painted that every thorn, stamen, and antennae endures). Ruysch herself was more immune to time than most artists and she continued painting (as well as ever) into her eighties.

Flemish Flatfish (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016) ink and watercolor on paper

Happy Solstice! I wanted to finish off the ocean theme and celebrate the longest day of the year by coloring one of my large flounder drawings (which I originally designed to be in a huge strange flatfish coloring book). Unfortunately, coloring the image took sooo long that the longest day of the year is now over! (and I am still not happy with the coloring–which turns out to be just as hard as I recall from childhood)

Anyway, here is a sky flounder with a Dutch still life on his/her body swimming over the flat sea by the low countries. Little Flemish details dot the composition (like the clay pipe at the bottom, the bagpiper by the beach, and Audrey Hepburn in a 17th century dress) however the endearing minutiae can not forever distract the viewer from larger themes of sacrifice and the ineluctable passage of time (both of which are fine ideas to contemplate on this druidic holiday).

As always, we will return to these ideas, but for now, happy summer!

Here is the golden crown of the Sultan of Banten. Manufactured around AD 1700, the crown is made of gold and silver filigree with non-faceted precious stones (presumably rubies, spinels, and garnets). The foliate design of the piece are typical of the Islamic goldsmithing and sculptural traditions of Java.

Straddling the western tip of Java and the south eastern end of Sumatra, the Sultanate of Banten was one of the most important of the Indonesian Islamic kingdoms which the Dutch worked so hard to subaltern and ultimately conquer. You might note that Indonesia’s contemporary capital Jakarta (assuming they haven’t moved it yet) is located in what was once Banten territory. The sultans of Banten derived their wealth and power from trading, and they were initially eager to trade with the Dutch and the English (whom they played against each other). Unfortunately for the Bantens, the Dutch destroyed Jayakarta and built a fortified town, Batavia on the ruins. Throughout the 17th century, Banten influence and wealth waned as the Dutch grew in power. A disastrous fight between father and son rivals for the sultanate allowed the Dutch to seize power and reduce the once powerful sultanate to a puppet kingdom.

In all of these posts about crowns, I have been ignoring/omitting the royal headdresses which I think are most gorgeous.  This is because crowns from this vast syncretic archipelago nation often defy traditional interpretation and classification as crowns (which sounds weird now, but which will become more comprehensible when you see today’s example).

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Also, Indonesia is enormous

Indonesia is a land of more than 17000 islands, including Java, the world’s most populous island.  Lying between major continents, oceans, hemispheres, and eco-regions, these islands have been reassembled in countless different forms into all manner of different empires, kingdoms, principalities, alliances, satrapies, colonies, and what ever other political units you can think of (although perhaps the most influential was the Majapahit Empire, a Hindu-Buddhist sea-based empire which was headquartered in Java and provided the cultural and aesthetic roots for contemporary Indonesian society).  Sometimes almost all of Indonesia has been unified.  Other times the islands have gone in different directions.

Anyway, as you can imagine, the complex history of these seventeen thousand islands partakes greatly of Indian, Chinese, South East Asian, Japanese, African, Australian, European (particularly Dutch), Melanesian, Polynesian, Papuan, Philippine, and American influences.  The gifted Indonesians (who have a particular genius for sculpture) have figured out ways to take all of these different flavors and make something which is breathtaking and uniquely their own.  Here is a crown from Singaraja, a Balinese City which was the courtly center for Dutch influence over Bali and the Sunda Islands between 1850 and 1950.  Like the British in India, the Dutch preferred to rule by subalterning small regional kingdoms into the merciless clutches of an anodyne-sounding “company” (The Dutch East India Company).

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King’s Crown from the Balinese Royal Court of Singaraja

This crown is from the second half of the nineteenth century (or maybe the early 20th century) when some local monarch had it made in emulation of a Dutch officer’s hat.  Look at how much it resembles an [American]  civil war cap!  And yet, despite its shape, this hat is nothing like an American/European military hat of that era.  It is made of gold and gemstones with undulating floral zoomorphic patterns on every inch!

Is this a crown?  Certainly. And yet if I pulled it out of a prop box, it would probably not pass muster.  Indonesian history has many similar caps, but I have never written about them, because of how hard it is to write about the baffling history of this enormous and complicated (yet not well-studied) part of the world.  Keep your eyes open for unfamiliar opulence ans (sigh) confusing and wordy explanations like this one!

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Happy Halloween! Here at Ferrebeekeeper we continue working through a list of snake monsters from around the world.  Today’s monster is from South African lore—but it is a little unclear what tradition it hales from.  Maybe, as in the case of, say, Bigfoot, the legends of indigenous people got mashed together with the aspirations and fears of European explorers, miners, and settlers to create an unsettling hybrid being…At any rate, this creature, the Grootslang, is said to be a colossal hybrid of an elephant and a serpent left over from the primordial building of the world.  The gods created a creature of enormous size, colossal intellect, dark cunning, and insatiable greed…oh and bendiness.  Grootslangs were soon destroying the newly created world, and the gods realized they had made a terrible mistake.  They separated the beings into different categories, giving size & intellect to the great elephants and supple cunning and greed to snakes.

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Yet some (or one?) Grootslang escaped and lived on to trouble humankind.  Myths assert that the Grootslang was even more avaricious, parsimonious, and cunning than diamond prospectors and Dutch colonial merchants (so obviously the stories are fake).  The Grootslang    is said to live in a cave filled with infinite diamonds somewhere in the Richtersveld of South Africa.  It is enormously wealthy and delights in cruelly torturing unwary prospectors to death, however its greed is it weakness and victims can prolong their life by offering it treasure and deals.  Alas, the Grootslang kept not just the cruelty strength and wealth of the ancient gods it also had their unearthly acumen and cunning, so deals made with it tended to go horribly wrong, in the manner of dragon curses from medieval tales.  So, if you run into the Grootslang you can potentially save yourself by offering it diamonds, but probably everything will come apart and you will be in a worse situation than you were originally.

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Hmm, maybe this thing is actually a metaphor for DeBeers…

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Ok, a while back Ferrebeekeeper poked some fun at the royal crown of Holland.  Thriftiness is a famous national characteristic of the Dutch and the coronation crown, made of fish paste and thinly gilded metal certainly encapsulates that dubious virtue. However, the Dutch had a globe spanning empire for a long time and do they have some exceedingly nice things.  Here is the Dutch Sapphire tiara, an 1881 love gift from King Willem III of the Netherlands to his wife, Queen Emma.  The magnificent tiara features 33 blue sapphires and 655 diamonds set in platinum.  The shape is meant to evoke the great Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages, but the workmanship is the finest the 19th century had to offer. A number of the stones are mounted “en tremblant”, which means they are attached to subtle springs which vibrate slightly with movement causing them to scintillate and glisten even more dazzlingly!

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Here it is being worn by Queen Maxima of Holland.  Maxima is a great name for a queen!

Gothic Cathedral in a Medieval City (Pieter Cornelis Dommersen, ca. late 19th century, oil on canvas)

Gothic Cathedral in a Medieval City (Pieter Cornelis Dommersen, ca. late 19th century, oil on canvas)

It has been too long since Ferrebeekeeper featured a Gothic-themed post…and we are still quite a ways from autumn, the spooky season when creepy beautiful imagery seems most appropriate.  To whet you interest for more complicated Gothic posts which are coming up (and to fulfil your need for beautiful art and architecture) here is a very beautiful painting of a cathedral by the brilliant Dutch architectural painter, Pieter Cornelis Dommersen (1833–1918) .  Dommersen’s art has fallen from fashion because of its fussy obsessiveness with detail and his anachronistic historical landscapes (which already seemed old-fashioned when he was painting them more than a century ago), but, to my eye there is a beautiful harmony of color and form in his works which make the little cityscapes come to life with unique power and vividness.  In this work the tiny burghers and worthies beneath the spires and gables of this German-looking medieval town seem to be made of the same cobbles, plaster, and masonry as their town. The entire brown and gray milieu teeters at the edge of being a Thomas Kincaid-type work of kitsch, yet somehow the way the Gothic buildings lean towards each other and beckon the viewer into the oddly familiar alleys transcends the merely picturesque realm of postcard art.  There is a real beauty and meaning in Dommersen’s art, but it is subtle and urbane.

A Young Man in a Fur Cap and a Cuirass (Carel Fabritius, 1654, oil on canvas)

A Young Man in a Fur Cap and a Cuirass (Carel Fabritius, 1654, oil on canvas)

Carel Fabritius (1622 – 12 October 1654) was the most gifted and innovative of Rembrandt’s many pupils. He alone escaped from the master’s shadow by reversing his teacher’s signature style: whereas Rembrandt was known for showing a brightly lit subject against a background of darkness, Fabritius painted dark subjects on a bright background. He certainly had a measure Rembrandt’s masterful humanism (as is evidenced by the soulful self-portrait above). In the early 1650s, Fabritius moved to Delft where a revolution in optics was underway. Based on the below painting “A View of Delft” painted in 1652, Fabritius was an early experimenter with lenses and optics in the visual arts. It is believed he taught Vermeer (who also used lenses to create special effects in his masterworks) and thus was an integral link between the two great 17th century Dutch masters.

A View of Delft (Carel Fabritius, 1652, oil on canvas)

A View of Delft (Carel Fabritius, 1652, oil on canvas)

Indeed Fabritius would likely be one of the most famous luminaries of world art with renown commensurate to Rembrandt & Vermeer except for a tragic and bizarre accident. On October 12, 1654–360 years ago yesterday–Cornelis Soetens opened the door of a gunpowder magazine located in a repurposed Clarissen convent (Soetens was the official keeper of said powder chamber). It is unclear what exactly went wrong but all 66,138 pounds of gunpowder ignited and combusted. The resultant explosion destroyed much of Delft. Fabritius was caught in the explosion and sustained mortal wound. As an added injury, the explosion destroyed Fabritius’ studio along with the majority of his life’s work. Only twelve known paintings remain—but they are very good paintings!

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The carrot (Daucus carota sativus) has been in cultivation at least since classical antiquity (although Roman sources sometimes seemingly confuse the root vegetable with its close cousin, the parsnip). However don’t imagine toga-clad Romans walking around the Forum chewing on bright orange carrots like Bugs Bunny! In Classical antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages, carrots were purple or white. It was not until the 16th century that far-sighted Dutch farmers stumbled upon a mutant orange carrot and hybridized it with other varieties to begin the now-familiar tradition of all orange carrots. It is said that the orange carrots were chosen not just for their patriotic Netherlandish color (the princely Dutch House of Orange was leading a revolt against the Spanish) but also because they were sweeter and milder than the ancient white and purple cultivars.

 

A rainbow of heritage carrots from Burpee seeds

A rainbow of heritage carrots from Burpee seeds

Apparently all humans (with our tastes skewed toward a primate color palate) like the color orange better. Despite the fact that other colors of the tasty root dominated the market for two thousand years, orange carrots have now thoroughly supplanted the old varieties. Even in diverse New York, you would have to go to an esoteric farmer’s market or a specialty shop like Dean & Deluca to maybe dredge up some purple carrots. However seed catalogs still sell them–so if you want to eat like a healthy Roman grandee (assuming grandees even ate carrots), you can always grow your own.  Additionally, it looks like health food aficionados have become convinced that purple carrots contain anti-oxidants, so maybe the color pendulum is about to swing back the other direction…

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Flower Still Life with Tulips and Roses (Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder,, oil on copper)

Flower Still Life with Tulips and Roses (Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder,, oil on copper)

Besotted with the beauty of spring, I am dedicating this week of Ferrebeekeeper to flowers and floral-themed posts (in retrospect I should have saved last week’s aquilegia post for this week—but consider that a teaser). To start this week’s flower celebration, we are returning to the Dutch Golden Age of painting to look at the life and works of Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1573-1621). Bosschaert was one of the artists whose work initiated the Dutch mania for still life paintings and for fancy flowers (he lived through the tulip mania and may have helped precipitate that economic bubble). He also founded a family dynasty of artists which endured throughout the 17th century—which is why he is styled “Bosschaert the Elder” (though I am just going to call him Bosschaert).

Tulips, Roses, a Pink and White Carnation, Forgets-Me-Nots, Lilly of the Valley and other Flowers in a Vase (Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, ca. 1619, oil on copper)

Tulips, Roses, a Pink and White Carnation, Forgets-Me-Nots, Lilly of the Valley and other Flowers in a Vase (Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, ca. 1619, oil on copper)

Bosschaert was born in Antwerp, but to avoid religious persecution, he moved to Middleburg where he spent most of his life painting with his equally famous and important brother-in-law Balthasar van der Ast. Bosschaert favored symmetrical bouquets of April-May flowers (mainly roses and extragent tulips) which he painted on copper—a surface which allows artists to paint in exacting detail. Unlike van der Ast, Bosschaert did not obsess over multitudinous insects, mollusks, and other crawly animals with symbolic meanings (although are usually a few dragonflies, cone snail shells, or moths at the edges of his paintings). Instead he concentrated on the pure formal beauty of flowers. Bosschaert concentrated on the lambent translucent beauty of an unfurling rose or the perfectly harmonized stripes of newly hybridized tulips. There are irises, poppies, and ranunculuses in supporting roles with their own elegance, but tulips and roses nearly always take a starring role.

Flower Still Life (Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, ca. 1619, oil on copper)

Flower Still Life (Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, ca. 1619, oil on copper)

Bosschaert was extremely popular and his works commanded top dollar…er guilder, but there are fewer than collectors and museums would like since he also worked as an art dealer. The paintings we have from him, however are magnificent. Even after all of the intervening centuries of decorative art, Bosschaert’s work has an unrivaled power to call attention to the pure mesmerizing beauty of flowers in carefully organized bouquets.

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